'Dancing With the Stars' is latest second chance for ParalympianBy JASON SCHREIBER
Union Leader Correspondent September 10. 2017 11:33PM
EXETER — Victoria Arlen had many dark moments that could have forced her to give up, but she was determined to get out of her wheelchair and walk again.
“I know I’m one of the very fortunate ones that has gotten a second chance at life,” said Arlen, who began walking a year ago after spending 10 years in a wheelchair while battling two rare conditions that could have been deadly.
With a week to go before she makes her debut as one of the newest contestants on ABC’s “Dancing With the Stars,” Arlen is preparing for the next chapter in her real-life story of perseverance.
“I just want to be a beacon of hope that you can pick up the pieces and keep going. Anything is possible and I’m living proof of that,” she said in an interview with the New Hampshire Union Leader.
A former Paralympic gold medalist swimmer and ESPN reporter, the 22-year-old Exeter woman will team up with two-time Mirrorball champion Valentin “Val” Chmerkovskiy when the new season of DWTS begins on Sept. 18.
Making it to the dance floor was a dream that seemed out of reach for Arlen, who was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis and Acute Disseminated Encephalomyelitis when she was 11.
The rare neurological conditions damaged her brain and spine and left her unable to speak, paralyzed from the waist down, and in a vegetative state for four years.
“Nothing seemed possible for me during that time. Things were so uncertain,” she said.
Her road to recovery was long and painful, but she found that it wasn’t impossible.
Arlen wasn’t sure she would ever walk again until a few years ago when she discovered Project Walk, an activity-based recovery center that has helped countless clients suffering from various forms of paralysis for nearly 20 years.
“They were the first people that gave us hope. We realized this was the answer,” said Arlen, who first connected with a Project Walk facility in San Diego, Calif.
After seeing the improvements she had made through training at the facility, Arlen’s parents, Larry and Jacqueline Arlen, decided to bring a Project Walk facility to Boston in January 2015.
Arlen began training at Project Walk Boston and remained hopeful that one day she would walk again.
“It became a full-time job for me,” she recalled.
There were many times when she became frustrated, but her encouraging trainers continued to push her.
The first sign of hope came on Nov. 11, 2015, when she felt a twitch in her right thigh. It was her first controlled muscle reaction in nearly 10 years.
Soon she began taking steps and by January 2016 she was walking with crutches. A few months later she had ditched the crutches as her walking continued to improve.
By September her leg braces were removed and she was on her own.
Arlen is now preparing for the next challenge: training to compete on DWTS.
“I have a really incredible group of trainers that work with me,” she said.
Arlen still experiences lingering health effects.
“I don’t have a lot of reflex in my lower legs and I don’t have sensation in my legs,” she said.
But she’s confident that she’ll perform well.
“You have to just keep moving and find a groove. You have to find your way,” she said.